Program Particulars: The Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua Heschel
*Times indicated refer to Web version of audio
(01:34) Heschel at the Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights March
At the invitation of Martin Luther King Jr., Heschel participated in the opening day of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. The photograph of Heschel walking alongside King and other religious and political leaders is considered an emblem of the civil rights movement and of Black-Jewish relations of that era.
After the march, Heschel wrote about the experience in a private memo, "I felt my legs were praying." His daughter, Susannah, shared more of this story in an article she originally wrote for Black Zion: African-American Religious Encounters with Judaism.
(02:40–04:30) Music Element
"The Multiples of One" from Awakening, performed by Joseph Curiale
(02:43) Archival Audio of Heschel
In November 1971, ABC news anchor Frank Reynolds interviewed Heschel about faith and spirituality in the modern world for the program Directions. The clip is an edited excerpt of that interview:
Frank Reynolds: You speak of reverence for the word. You know, I'm reminded that it's only in the last few years that we enacted a piece of legislation called "Truth in Advertising." Why should any of us be surprised at statements made by politicians or by diplomats who are after all interesed in their own well-being, or the well-being of their country. Why should we be surprised at the abuse of language when we see it all around us? Isn't it built into our society today? Abraham Joshua Heschel: I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. What keeps me alive — spiritually, emotionally, intellectually — is my ability to be surprised. I say, I take nothing for granted. I am surprised every morning that I see the sun shine again. When I see an act of evil, I am not accommodated — I don't accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I'm still surprised. That's why I'm against it; why I can fight against it. We must learn how to be surprised, not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.
(03:20) Hasidic Family
According to Heschel biographer Edward Kaplan, Jews comprised 41 percent of Warsaw's population during Heschel's youth and included a diversity of religious and secular groupings. Hasidism made up the largest group among observant Jews in Warsaw, and Heschel's Hasidic family was among the most traditional.
Hasidism comes from the Hebrew word for "pious." Hasidism grew as a Jewish mystical movement among persecuted European Jews in the 18th century. It was founded by a mystic named Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, or Baal Shem Tov, in Eastern Europe. Hasidism stresses piety and joyful worship over the intellectual study of the Talmud. Orthodox Jewish leaders thought the movement's mystical bent would detract from the study of the Torah, but by the mid-19th century it was generally accepted as a branch of Judaism. Hasidism rapidly gained popularity throughout Poland, Russia, Hungary, and other Eastern European countries, and after World War II in the United States.
Out of this tradition, a belief in the power of stories emerged. Since much of Hasidic social life revolves around a charismatic leader, the zaddik — meaning "righteous man" in Hebrew — stories of present and past zaddikim compose a significant part of the group's mythology. Worship is characterized by joy, and manifests itself in song and dance as well as prayer. Hasidic Jews believe that all creation is an embodiment of the divine; sorrow and despair have no true reality in this world.
There are references to around a dozen major Hasidic movements today, the largest being the Lubavitch group in Brooklyn, New York. A 1998 PBS documentary titled "A Life Apart: Hasidism in America" profiled this group and provides a brief introduction to Hasidism.
To hear the compelling role Hasidism played in Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel's life, listen to the On Being program "The Tragedy of the Believer."
(04:00) 1940 Immigration to the United States
Eight months after war was declared in Europe, Heschel arrived in the United States. On March 21, 1940, Abraham Heszel (sic, as his Polish passport said), stepped off an ocean liner onto a dock in New York City. Biographer Edward Kaplan describes how Heschel was one of a group of eight refugee professors known as the "College in Exile." They were brought to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, a Reform institution, by college president Julian Morgenstern as part of an initiative to rescue European Jewish scholars. At a time when immigrant visas were very difficult to obtain, Morgenstern successfully appealed to the State Department by stressing "the utility of modern Judaism as a 'modern, liberal, and progressive religion.'"
Kaplan notes that Heschel was already thinking beyond Hebrew Union College when he arrived in the U.S.: "While in Europe, he had confided to Martin Buber that he had accepted the HUC offer for pragmatic reasons, as a way to obtain a visa and a place to stay while he sought a more compatible institution." Heschel pursued contacts at both the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University to find a new professional home that was a better fit with his study and practice of Judaism. In the fall of 1945, Heschel joined the faculty of Jewish Theological Seminary as associate professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism.
(04:50) Archival Audio of Heschel
As part of the long-running series The Eternal Light, journalist Carl Stern interviewed Rabbi Heschel in 1972. They spoke about the Hebrew prophets:
Therefore, I would say the spirit of the prophet, the message of the prophet, is very much alive. The kind of men who combine very deep love, very powerful dissent, painful rebuke, with unwavering hope.
In that same interview, Heschel describes the influence of the Hebrew prophets on him:
I've written a book on the prophets. A rather large book. I spent many years. And, really, this book changed my life. Because early in my life, my great love was for learning, studying. And the place where I preferred to live was my study and books and writing and thinking. I've learned from the prophets that I have to be involved in the affairs of man, in the affairs of suffering man. And I would like to say that one of the saddest things about contemporary life in America is that the prophets are unknown. There's a complete decline of the Bible in American education. No one knows the prophets. There are countless intellectuals, who may be great authorities on literature, who have never read the prophets, really, have never been touched by them. And this, I'm sorry to say, is a little bit of a disaster. The great examples we need today are the ancient prophets of Israel. I say that this book on the prophets I wrote changed my life. And I think that anyone who reads the prophets will discover, number one, that the prophets really were the most disturbing people who ever lived."
(05:33) Opening of God in Search of Man
Eisen says as a teenager his imagination was captured by Heschel's opening words in his 1955 work God in Search of Man:
It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.
(11:20) Audio of Heschel Speech at 1963 Conference on Religion and Race
In response to Krista's question about the biblical basis for Heschel's conviction of being involved in human affairs and human suffering, Eisen refers to Heschel's 1963 speech at a national conference on religion and race. Heschel's opening address, titled "The Religious Basis of Equality and Opportunity," began:
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses [audience laughter and clapping]. Moses' words were: 'Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go that they may celebrate a feast to me.' While Pharaoh retorted: "Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go." The outcome of that summit meeting has not yet come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses."
Heschel's address opened the Chicago-area conference of Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant leaders. The final conference address was given by Martin Luther King Jr. This was the first meeting between Heschel and King. Edward Kaplan outlines the commonalities between them: "The two quickly became allies, realizing that they shared basic ways of perceiving the world, not least a biblical theology grounded in the Israelites' liberation from slavery in Egypt, and a commitment to nonviolence. Both men were charismatic orators at the fullness of their powers. Heschel as a writer and speaker, the younger King as a preacher and movement leader. Each had been influenced by the activist theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and used it to help communicate his minority experience to the American mainstream.
In a 2004 interview for National Public Radio's The Tavis Smiley Show, Princeton professor of religion Cornel West spoke about the significant impact Heschel's ideas had on King's approach to non-violence, race, and human rights — and the enduring relationship of these two men.
(12:50) Heschel and King at 1968 Rabbinical Assembly Convention
During an annual meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly in 1968, Heschel was honored by Conservative rabbis for a belated 60th birthday celebration and recognizing his social activism and his contributions to Jewish scholarship. Martin Luther King Jr. was the keynote speaker, and the rabbis acknowledged him by singing the civil rights song "We Shall Overcome" in Hebrew.
Heschel introduced King saying, "Where in America do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America."
(16:06) Presence of God in King’s Life
Corretta Scott King recounts the night Martin Luther King Jr. distinctly felt God's presence in his life in the forward to the book Standing in the Need of Prayer: A Celebration of Black Prayer:
For my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., prayer was a daily source of courage and strength that gave him the ability to carry on in even the darkest hours of our struggle. I remember one very difficult day when he came home bone-weary from the stress that came with his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the middle of that night, he was awakened by a threatening and abusive phone call, one of many we received throughout the movement. On this particular occasion, however, Martin had had enough. After the call, he got up from bed and made himself some coffee. He began to worry about his family, and all of the burdens that came with our movement weighed heavily on his soul. With his head in his hands, Martin bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud to God: "Lord, I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can't face it alone." Later he told me, "At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear a voice saying: 'Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.'" When Martin stood up from the table, he was imbued with a new sense of confidence, and he was ready to face anything. I believe that this prayer was a critical turning point for the African-American freedom struggle, because from that point forward, we had a leader who was divinely inspired and could not be turned back by threats or any form of violence. This kind of courage and conviction is truly contagious, and I know his example inspired me to carry on through the difficult days of my journey.
(18:08) Cited Passage of Heschel
Krista cites a passage from a Heschel essay titled "The God of Israel and Christian Renewal," reprinted in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, a collection of Heschel's essays edited by his daughter Susannah Heschel.
The Hebrew Bible records God's "mighty acts" in history. What is overlooked is that on every page of the Bible we come upon God's hoping and waiting for man's mighty acts.
(19:43–21:20) Music Element
"Nocturne op.9/1: Larghetto" from Polish Spirit, performed by Nigel Kennedy
(20:10) Heschel's work with Roman Catholic Officials
In 1960, Pope John XXIII directed Cardinal Augustin Bea to prepare a draft declaration on the relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish people for the upcoming Ecumenical Council (the original name of the Second Vatican Council).
Bea sought the advice of the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish organizations. Heschel was a primary theological consultant to the American Jewish Committee, and he became the principal interpreter of Jewish views to the Vatican. For four years he negotiated with Bea and other officials, and met with Pope Paul VI, to influence the 1965 Nostra Aetate ("in our time") — the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions. This statement is viewed as a turning point in Jewish-Christian relations, reversing many centuries of standard Christian teachings about Jews including no longer blaming Jews collectively for the death of Jesus and refraining from calling for Jews to convert to Catholicism.
(20:25) "No Religion Is an Island" at Union Theological Seminary
In the 1950s and 1960s, Heschel gained prominence in the Protestant community that dominated American social and political life in those decades. Heschel was the first Jew to be honored with the Fosdick Visiting Professorship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In November 1965, he gave his inaugural lecture, titled "No Religion Is An Island," (PDF) to thunderous applause from an interfaith audience in a packed auditorium. The speech, which he later revised for publication in the Union Seminary Quarterly, is considered his timeless argument for religious pluralism:
Today religious isolationism is a myth. For all the profound differences in perspective and substance, Judaism is sooner or later affected by the intellectual, moral and spiritual events within the Christian society, and vice versa.
(20:46) Depth Theology
Heschel described depth theology in an essay of the same name in The Insecurity of Freedom:
Theology speaks for the people; depth theology speaks for the individual. Theology strives for communication, for universality; depth theology strives for insight, for uniqueness. Theology is like sculpture, depth theology like music. Theology is in the books; depth theology is in the hearts. The former is doctrine, the latter an event. Theologies divide us; depth theology unites us.
(22:12) Heschel and Reinhold Niebuhr
Heschel's relationship with the towering Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr exemplifies, according to Eisen, the rabbi's ability to see in other people of faith depths of religious belonging — that they live in the presence of God and therefore have kinship with him.
In 1951, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a glowing review of Heschel's book Man Is Not Alone, which started a firm friendship between the two men. In the introduction to her book, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Susannah Heschel recalls her father saying that Niebuhr understood his work better than anyone else: "With all the differences in their beliefs, both had similar understandings of the role of a theologian — not simply philosophical discussion, but political activism — and they shared a deep love of the Hebrew Bible."
His wife Ursula Niebuhr considered Heschel her husband's closest friend during the last 12 years of his life. In a speech given at The College of St. Benedict in 1983, "Notes on a Friendship: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reinhold Niebuhr," she spoke about the fondness her husband had for Rabbi Heschel:
On a lovely Friday afternoon, my husband and I returned to our apartment house after a walk along Riverside Drive. Our very pleasant doorman told us that our friend had dropped in, and on learning we were out had left with him a gift for us. The doorman took this from some safe place and presented us with a bottle, wrapped up in silver foil. We asked whether he knew who had left it. He answered that it was the learned gentleman with whom Professor Niebuhr walks. I triumphantly exclaimed, "Abraham, no doubt." The doorman continued, "He said he had just come back from Rome, and that he had seen the Pope." I am afraid I let out a somewhat unladylike cry of glee, and said, "Heavens! This must be holy water!" We went into the elevator and upstairs. Entering our apartment, and while helping my husband off with his coat, he said to me, "You must ring Abraham up at once and thank him." I looked out of the window across the Hudson where the sun had dropped behind the horizon of New Jersey. I said, "I don't think I should, the sun has set and Shabbat has started." At that moment, the telephone rang. It was Abraham, "I'm back. Have you got my present?" It is brandy for Reinhold. And I did see the Pope." "Abraham," I squealed, "I was going to ring you up to thank you, Reinhold is right here, but the sun has set; so of course I didn't." "It is all right. There are two more minutes to go, and I wanted to be sure. I'll see you soon. My love to you both."
(23:43) Passage from "No Religion Is an Island"
Krista references another passage from Heschel's 1965 speech "No Religion Is an Island":
I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting of men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility and contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind’s reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God's commandment, while stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith.
(25:42–26:20) Music Element
"Barcarolle, Op. 60 in F-sharp" from Rubinstein Collection, Vol. 46, performed by Arthur Rubinstein
(26:21–29:33) Music Element
"Kazimierz" from East Meets East, performed by Nigel Kennedy & The Kroke Band
(29:03) Archival Audio of Heschel
The audio clip of Heschel speaking about prayer is from his 1972 interview with NBC journalist Carl Stern. This hour-long interview was recorded on December 10, 1972, just two weeks before Heschel's death. It was broadcast nationally in February 1973 as part of NBC's The Eternal Light program:
Stern: But that raises the question, though, if you're saying that if God were to control every aspect of man's life, it would not be living, then that raises the question: why pray to God, then? If God is not going to interfere, if God is not going to intervene, if God is not going to help, what is the role of prayer? Heschel: First of all, let us not misunderstand the nature of prayer, particularly in Jewish tradition. The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song, and man cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and man. God needs our help. I would define man as a divine need. God is in need of man.
(34:48) Heschel on Vietnam
Biographer Edward Kaplan called Heschel "the most visible traditional Jew in the anti-Vietnam war movement." In 1966, he co-founded the Committee of Clergy Concerned About Vietnam (later called Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam), along with then-Lutheran minister Richard John Neuhaus (now a Catholic priest) and Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan.
In an essay adapted from his book, Holiness in Words: Abraham Joshua Heschel's Poetics of Piety, Kaplan recounts hearing Heschel speak about his opposition to the Vietnam war:
From 1965 on, he was a dramatic presence at press conferences, worship meetings, and national protests as he opposed the United States' military intervention in Vietnam, which he considered criminal. Responsibility is our inescapable inheritance as free citizens, he insisted. The Vietnam emergency became the religious imperative of Rabbi Heschel's final years. At an interfaith worship meeting in Washington, DC in 1967, in which I participated, he explained that the divine reality brought him to oppose the war: "The encounter of man and God is an encounter within the world. We meet within a situation of shared suffering, of shared responsibility. This is implied in believing in One God in whose eyes there is no dichotomy of here and there, of me and them. Oceans divide us, God's presence unites us, and God is present wherever man is afflicted, and all of humanity is embroiled in every agony wherever it may be. "Though I am not a native of Vietnam, ignorant of its language and traditions, I am involved in the plight of the Vietnamese." Rabbi Heschel assumed the spiritual unity of all human beings. The breakdown of trust in the U.S. government during the Vietnam period made all the more urgent a commitment to biblical standards of personal integrity and civic responsibility.
(37:43) Heschel Meeting with Muslims
In 1972, Heschel was invited to participate in an interfaith conference that included Muslims. Despite being in frail health, Heschel insisted he make a final trip to Rome to attend the conference, which included 25 participants — nine Christians, four Muslims, and six Jews.
In an upcoming documentary by Steve Brand, Seyyed Hossein Nasr talks about sitting next to Heschel during much of the conference. Each acknowledged their familiarity with one another's work — Heschel of Nasr's books on Sufism and Islamic mysticism and Nasr on Heschel's writings, which he taught at Tehran University. Nasr told Heschel, "This is an unforgettable moment for me. I have read everything you have written I could find. God give you strength."
(38:01–39:10) Music Element
"Rubies, Pearls, and Emeralds" from The Rodeo Eroded, performed by Tin Hat Trio
(39:57) Heschel Speaking to Both Reform and Conservative Traditions
Eisen references Heschel's 1953 addresses to both Reform and Conservative rabbis as examples of Heschel's legacy that challenge us to do things differently and remind us of "what we need."
Heschel biographer Edward Kaplan calls June 1953 a time where Heschel delivered "his most detailed outline of what he thought rabbis of all denominations should strive for. To each group, Heschel asserted exactly what its members did not want to hear. Conservative Judaism, like Orthodox, emphasized law (halakhah) and ritual observance over cultivation of inner life; Reform rejected the halakhah in favor of rational philosophy and individual choice. To the leaders of each movement Heschel tailored his counterdiscourse to restore the fullness of Judaism, contradictions and all."
Heschel spoke first to Conservatives at the fifty-third annual Rabbinical Assembly, delivering "The Spirit of Jewish Prayer." The day after that conference ended, Heschel addressed the sixty-fourth annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, delivering "Contemporary Currents in Jewish Theology."
(42:53) Reference to Heschel Speaking to Young People in Stern Interview
Eisen refers to Heschel's hopeful message to young people in his 1972 interview with Carl Stern as an example of Heschel's perspective that he tries to echo with today's youth. A clip of this archival audio is included at the end of the program:
I would say to young people a number of things, and I have only one minute. I would say let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can do, everyone, our share to redeem the world, in spite of all absurdities, and all the frustrations, and all the disappointment. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build life as if it were a work of art. You're not a machine. When you're young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence.
(45:01–49:04) Music Element
"Giada (Chapter I)" from Book of Velocities, performed by Jon Balke
(45:19) Jewish Daily Prayer
Eisen says Heschel is paraphrasing one of the most important daily Jewish prayers, "Blessed be He who spoke and the world came in to being," when he said "words create worlds."
Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being; blessed be He. Blessed be He who maintains the creation. Blessed be He who speaks and performs. Blessed be He who decrees and fulfils. Blessed be He who has mercy upon the earth. Blessed be He who has mercy on his creatures. Blessed be He who pays a good reward to those who fear Him. Blessed be He who lives for ever, and endures to eternity. Blessed be He who redeems and saves; blessed be his name.…
(49:05–49:40) Music Element
"Violin Concerto in A Op.8 - II. Romanza: Adante" from Polish Spirit, performed by Nigel Kennedy
(50:12–53:02) Music Element
"Jovano Jovanke" from East Meets East, performed by Nigel Kennedy & The Kroke Band